While there is a lot of focus nowadays on communicating across cultures and nationalities, there is often greater confusion between those from the same culture who speak the same language. It all comes down to the words we choose.

While language has meaning and clarity that allow us to communicate with each other in a way superior to all other creatures, it also has a vagueness and ambiguity that compromises it — creating misunderstanding, frustration and lost opportunities.


Our brain loves patterned thinking because it is efficient. It sees a situation that, superficially, appears similar to a past situation and immediately starts treating this situation the same as the past. 

This is most dangerous when we meet new people. While it helps us to remember them by noticing points they have in common with those we already know, the temptation is to “pigeon-hole” them.

So, we give them a label — for example, “Jane and John are social climbers” — and treat them accordingly.

Then the phenomenon known as “confirmation bias” means that we tend to only notice those characteristics that confirm our labelling. This hinders effective communication and stops us from getting to know the real individual.

On the other hand, labelling can be used positively in two ways:


This refers to our self-talk of how we “label” others. As American religious leader Thomas S. Monson says: “When we treat people merely as they are, they will remain as they are. When we treat them as if they were what they should be, they will become what they should be. 

Positive labelling

This relates to how we speak to others. Positive labelling is a very powerful persuasive tool: 

•   Label a customer as “loyal” and he will want to maintain that loyalty;

•   Label a staff member as “pro-active” and he will be more likely to initiate action; and

•   Label someone as “trustworthy” and “reliable” and he will want to live up to those labels.

For example, if I am in a negotiation where I am going to ask the other party to consider some innovative options, then I will find something in their past that I can identify as being innovative. 

I will then compliment them on their innovative approach in that situation. By labelling them as “innovative”, they are more likely to listen positively to my innovative proposal later on.


The words we use are often ambiguous.  It has been estimated that 65 per cent of the words we use in English have more than one meaning. This is why paraphrasing is so important; and, like labelling, there are two ways we can use it:

Paraphrase yourself

Every industry and profession has its jargon, and this is necessary for efficient communication. The danger is that we use this jargon in communication with those from outside the industry.

Ironically, that is what is expected of us. If you go to a financial planner for advice and he does not use financial terminology you may feel insulted.

Yet, do the two of you on either side of the conversation have the same understanding of those terms? Probably not.

The professional financial planner feels that he needs to sound like the expert. You, the client, do not want to sound like an idiot — because that’s what you will feel like if you admit to not understanding the jargon.

The way around this is for you, in your work as a professional, to paraphrase yourself along the way. You use the jargon, then, within the next few sentences, you paraphrase yourself.

For example, you might say: “This will also allow you to enhance your EIS* status. This *Export Incentive Scheme could give you some significant grants. 

Paraphrase others

The best way to overcome the ambiguity of words is to repeat what you have heard in your own words.

You never have to worry about being wrong. If your paraphrase does not correctly reflect what the speaker meant, he will correct you — and appreciate that you made the effort to truly understand.

Short word phrases

Some of the most powerful phrases consist of two short words. Here are two:

“… or not?” This short phrase added to the end of the final sentence requests a response from the other person. This gives you confirmation and, if required, increased commitment.

It has been proved that if you can have someone respond “yes” to a request, they are 40 per cent more likely to act on it later. Here’s how you could use it:

•   “Is that important to you…or not?”

•   “Will you do what I asked…or not?”

•   “Have I got that right…or not?

 “… for you”. This reminds the other person that you have them as first priority.  Here’s how you might add it:

•   “Here’s what I need to do for you.”

•   “We’re trying to find the easiest way for you.”

•   “It will take a couple of minutes and I’ll be back for you.”

It is getting harder to get people to listen. When they do, make sure you are using the right words.


Article by Kevin Ryan, managing director of Training Edge Australia and an international speaker, workshop leader and author with Training Edge International. For more information, e-mail kevin.ryan@trainingedgeasia.com or visit www.trainingedgeasia.com